Saturday, September 14, 2013

Subversion Myths

There is one particular story that is among our most resilient pieces of cultural information. It arises spontaneously on all continents at various times, and quickly spreads. The story can facilitate a revolution, or it can protect the status quo, depending on its specifics and its messenger.

The story is the one about bad people doing bad things, and how they are responsible for the problems in the world. These bad people must be rooted out and stopped for the sake of the country and - often quite literally - the children.

A folklore term for this kind of story is a "subversion myth." Historical examples abound; here are a few from Jeffrey S. Victor's paper "Satanic Cult Rumors as Contemporary Legend," in Western Folklore 49:1 at page 51:

In Ancient Rome, the stories commonly claimed that Christians were kidnapping Roman children for use in secret ritual sacrifices. Later, during the Middle Ages, the stories claimed that Christian children were being kidnapped by Jews, again for use in secret ritual sacrifices....In France, just before the French Revolution, similar stories accused aristocrats of kidnapping the children of the poor, for use of their blood in medical baths. [Citations omitted.]

Police in modern Saudi Arabia routinely hunt, arrest, prosecute, and execute witches. In a similar vein, Christian religious programming on state-run television in Benin, Nigeria, in the early 1980s generally condemned Western influence and blamed the country's problems on corruption and witchcraft. "It is particularly appropriate that the church explains both individual and societal misfortune in simple, personalized terms, not only because such explanations are politically expedient and coincide with official doctrine, but also because they reflect the prevailing though patterns of those who still inhabit [a world of magic]," say Lyons & Lyons in "Magical Medicine on Television: Benin City, Nigeria," Journal of Ritual Studies 1:1 (1987).

The Benin example highlights that the vilified class need not exist in reality for the story to be effective, as with the satanic cult ritual abuse panics of the 1980s and to some extent the modern wars on terror and bigotry.

What makes the story of bad guys so popular? Mainly, it provides a universally applicable justification for why things are not going well. In human societies, things are generally not going well in a variety of ways, at least from the perspective of individual members, but subversion myths arise in times of special trouble; as Victor puts it, they "usually arise at times when a society is undergoing a deep cultural crisis of values, after a period of very rapid social change has caused much disorganization and widespread social stress."

This justification for things not going well satisfies people's need for an explanation for the troubles. A story that vilifies those in power may precede (and perhaps help bring about) the revolution, as in France. (Revolutions are particularly likely to occur when things are really, really not going well in a society in the first place, hence there is a great perceived need for an explanation.)

A story that vilifies others, however, is useful once the revolutionaries have seized power and become the government, with an interest in maintaining the status quo. When religious movements like Islamism, democracy, Christianity, and communism first come into power, things are generally pretty bad; the new government has something like regression to the mean on its side. Unfortunately, political societies are delicate, carefully evolved systems and it's amazing that they limp along at all; attempts at reform, like mutations in DNA, usually make things worse. The story offers hope. Millions of scapegoats have been executed by governments in service of this story.

Despite its flaws, the story is certainly more comfortable than suddenly accepting that large human societies just can't be very good or wise or fair or free, and that attempts to manipulate the intricate yet lumbering social ecosystem, no matter how well-meaning and carefully researched, usually make things worse.

8 comments:

  1. What would you identify as the cultural crisis behind SRA claims during the 1980s? The metal scene always struck me as too superficial, and the best Crowell and I could come up with is that it may have arisen out of the changing role of mothers in a post-divorce, post-liberation environment -- that for the first time, children were being entrusted to the care of strangers in day care facilities and this primed collective guilt and fearsome projection in the form of subversion myths. The Kelly Micheals case might be a good one to pick at here.

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    1. I think that is a major factor - leaving your kids screaming at the day care day after day has to take a toll. But surprisingly, some of the main vectors of the panics are not mothers, but police satan-hunters and fundamentalist clergy. The main actor in McMartin was a father. So I think it has to be broader than just day care guilt to motivate these actors, though that's certainly important.

      Also don't forget that cattle mutilation at the time also gets blamed on satan worshippers, not just child killing/torture/sex abuse.

      Also I suspect that the widespread crisis that generated the SRA rumors did not actually get resolved, but is still with us, still being responded to with narratives.

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  2. McMartin started with a schizophrenic woman's allegations but I think the event that cinched it was the form letter sent out to parents. That primed the subconscious pump and created a mob scene. Then it was a long queue of cops and shrinks and media boobs stoking the fire. I was an early skeptic and I remember the lurid daytime talkshow shenanigans where Oprah was front and center, and I remember the absurd statistics that were bandied about by cops and clergy. It was such a strange atmosphere to breathe at the time, and when the dust began to settle the curious thing, to me, was that people who were once invested in the story (writ large; there were many other cases) just sort of disappeared into the shadows. Waiting for the next eruption, I suppose.

    An inchoate crisis is scary because you want to be able to at least explain the cultural etiology of a panic after the worst is over. You're right, of course, that the novelty of daycare was only one ingredient in a vat that yet simmers. Satan means evil means demons and witches. Means an wholesale excuse to do fucking anything to thwart a lurking threat to a fragile order.

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  3. we've got to do something about all those people making up stories about bad people doing bad things

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  4. I'm interested in the distinction between subversion stories that are about somewhat easily recognizable others (black welfare moms; muslims; communists in communist countries) and ones that are about evil people we would never suspect who walk among us (neighbors putting razorblades in candy at halloween; americans who attended communist meetings; kids who will try to hook your kid on the super scary newest most dangerous drug). The origins and purposes of these types of stories seem quite distinct; yet they still have the same basic structure.

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    1. There's some discussion of the transition from conspicuous to internicine subversive types (in the context of American history) in Jesse Walker's new book, The United States of Paranoia.

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  5. I wonder if the chairman of the Federal Reserve from 1987-2006 was Italian, then the chairman who took his place was also Italian, and the only people currently in the running to to take his place were all Italian, would anyone find this strange? Would it be a "subversion myth?"

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  6. The subversion myth is created by those attempting to control, it is a common theme among totalitarian systems. The more controlling the regime attempts to be, the stronger the myth becomes.

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